Heroes

 

Extra Life Boo & Wow

This post is more personal than some, but then at some time in many of our lives cancer gets personal.  As many of you know, I have a companion and co-therapist named Boo.  For the past 12 years Miss Boo has worked with me to help in therapy.  We have worked with hundreds of children, adolescents and adults in settings ranging from special needs classrooms, alternative schools and outpatient settings.  And for the past decade we have been working together in my private practice.

This past Spring Boo developed a form of cancer known as osteosarcoma, which is a form of cancer where the tumor grows in the bone.  In her case, Boo began limping and we discovered that she had it in her front right leg.  What followed was a series of scary tests and decisions.  The recommended treatment for this in dogs is amputation of the limb and a course of chemo.  I was worried about this on so many levels:  I didn’t want to lose my friend, I didn’t want her to be in pain, and how was I doing to explain this to my patients?  You can’t just have a dog show up one week with one less leg and be all blank screen about it.  Some people suggested I retire her, but so many people come to me with ruptures in attachment, people who just walked out on them or were taken from them, that that didn’t make sense either.  Nope, we were going to do this honestly and mindfully.  If Boo could show up for such a challenging treatment, I could show up for her and we could show up for our patients.

Over the next few weeks I let people know what was going on if they wanted to know, to the extent they wanted to know.  While she was recovering from surgery I let people know that as well.  And when Boo came back to work, well that was a powerful week.  Cancer changes your body, but the self persists.  Boo had a visible change, there was a scar.  Some people approached petting her, some didn’t.  Boo accepted all of them.  Some people were reluctant to talk at first, imagining their problems were nothing compared to cancer or losing a leg, but we explored and put those concerns in perspective.  We all had work to do, and we did it.

Time passed, and chemo ended.  This is the result:

Each year, I take part in Extra Life, a worldwide celebration of the social impact of gamers of all kinds from video games to board games and tabletop RPG’s! Since 2010, Extra Life has raised more than $14 million to help children’s hospitals provide critical treatments and healthcare services, pediatric medical equipment, research and charitible care.  Your donation is tax-deductible and ALL PROCEEDS go to help kids nationwide and locally at my awesome colleagues at Boston Children’s Hospital.

This year, on November 7th, I’ll be playing World of Warcraft with a special avatar in honor of Boo.  (Of course I’ll be taking breaks every 45 minutes to keep my health ans stamina in good shape.)  If you want to join our team, Miss Boo’s Battalion, you can do that too!*  You don’t have to play WoW, you can play Minecraft, Dark Souls, Candy Crush, my colleague Jane McGonigal’s Superbetter, Zombies Run!, anything.  You can play Tabletop games like D&D or Pathfinder.  You don’t have to go 24 hours straight, any amount of time, anything you raise, helps.  Sharing the post helps too–you never know who might decide to donate or get their game on.

Miss Boo is my hero, and if you are living with cancer in your life you are my hero too.  Whether you are battling it yourself, defeating it, thriving after it, supporting someone who is, celebrating a win or grieving a loss, you are a hero.  On Saturday, November 7th, why not be a hero too?

*Past and present patients are asked to refrain to protect their privacy, but can always get involved with Extra Life on their own here.

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Using Gaming & Gamification in Clinical Practice

What does “gamification” mean, and what is its relevance to mental health practice?  In this video of a conversation I had at University at Buffalo with Charles Syms, I take a stab at answering those questions.  This is just a start, and hopefully by the end of the video you can begin to see how applying principles of game design could be therapeutic for people dealing with issues ranging from trauma to executive functioning challenges to substance abuse and beyond.

 

 

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Gamer-Affirmative Practice: Today’s Play Therapy

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The importance of play is universal, and in many ways the nature of play is timeless.  That said, there is a lot to learn about video games as 21st-century play, especially if you are a play therapist.  Adding 21st-century forms of play to your repertoire can be daunting.  With so many naysayers in the mental health profession, avoidance of learning the new takes the form of contempt prior to investigation.  With video games being low-hanging fruit for political arguments ranging from gun control to teen bullying, many social workers, psychologists and counselors give in to the media hype and spend far more time demonizing or ignoring this form of play than they do understanding it.

Recently my colleagues at the University at Buffalo made it a point to take a gamer-affirmative stance and offer a beginning piece of continuing education on integrating video games as play therapy in the form of a podcast.  In it my friend, colleague, and yes, fellow video game player Anthony Guzman and I have a beginning conversation about just that.  Have a listen:

inSocialWork® Episode 144 – Michael Langlois: Gamer-Affirmative Practice: Today’s Play Therapy

 

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Bringing Emerging Technology into the Clinical Process: Implications for Engagement and Treatment

If you have ever wondered how to begin attending to, listening for, and asking questions about a patient’s use of technology, this video might give you some ideas.  In it my colleague Lesa Fichte, LMSW, University at Buffalo School of Social Work, and I, discuss the role of technology, people’s relationship with technology, and how to integrate it into the treatment process by listening, inquiring, and learning.

 

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Evocation and Mindfulness: Or, How to Think Better

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Like other art forms, video games can be both a mirror and a candle held up to our culture, at times reflecting it and at times revealing things about it.  Normally I direct my posts primarily at people: therapists, gamers, educators, parents.  But today I want to include the company that produces World of Warcraft as well.  We have a crisis regarding thinking, and although I don’t think WoW created it at all, it has reflected it in a recent game mechanic change.

I am referring to a change mages that happened recently, where the spell Evocation was replaced by Rune of Power.  For people not familiar with the game, here’s a simple explanation.  Mages cast spells, but spells require an energy called mana, which gets used up gradually as you cast spells.  How much mana you start with depends on your character’s intellect, and once you have used up your mana, you can’t cast any more spells until it is replenished.  To replenish it you can either wait and it will gradually return (not the greatest idea in combat,) or eat and drink (not possible while you are in combat.)  Or you could in the older days cast Evocation, which meant you stood in place as the spell was going, gain 15% of your total mana instantly and another 45% of your total mana over 6 sec.  Move or get attacked, and the spell broke.

This recently was replaced with Rune of Power, which places a rune on the ground, which lasts for 1 min. While standing within 5 yds of it, your mana regeneration is increased by 75% and your spell damage is increased by 15%.  You have to keep remembering to replace it every minute, but that’s not the problem.  It may even be an easier game mechanic, but that’s not the problem either.  My problem with it is how it reflects our dysfunctional attitude about thinking, and specifically our tendency to think of thinking as separate from doing something.

We live in a culture where people frequently worry about things, and in fact have ruminations that are intrusive.  Many people report feeling hijacked by their minds with worrying or intrusive thoughts.  And yet at the same time, few of us seem to mark our time and set it aside specifically for thinking.  We schedule appointments to do things, but thinking isn’t one of them.  We treat thinking, which is intangible, as if it can occur in the same space as doing other activities that are more observable and tangible.  And then we are surprised when our minds rebel and hijack our thinking with thoughts and feelings that come unbidden, when all along we have been failing to cultivate the practice of intentional, mindful thinking about things.

This is where I think Blizzard and Wow initially had it right with Evocation.  It was acknowledging an important truth, that Thinking IS doing something, and when done intentionally it occupies time and has benefits.  Sure you weren’t able to do other things while casting Evocation, but isn’t that the point?  In the real world, when you want to think deeply and seriously about something, you really do need to be intentional about it, and make a space in your day to do it.  Rune of power definitely embraces the multitasking model, which encourages you to set up a rune and then go about your other business while keeping half an eye on it to know when to refresh.  Multitasking is not inherently a bad thing, but there are times and places that intentional thinking may be more appropriate and less anxiety-provoking.

Part of helping patients learn to manage worrying is often to help them set up a specific time for worrying about things.  This “worry time” can be a placeholder in the day or week which the patient uses when an intrusive worry enters into their thinking: They can dismiss it by deciding to put that on the agenda for the scheduled worry time.  This is a way of training your mind to be intentional about what you choose to think about and when.  But implicit in this is the idea that training your mind to think about things intentionally is a learned skill.

You can apply this to many different aspects of your life and work.  If you are growing your private practice, when was the last time you set aside an hour to think deeply about your business plan or clinical focus.  I’m not talking about daydreaming here, I’m talking about sustained intentional thought.  Clinically, do you set aside supervision time to think deeply about patients?  As students do you take 15 minutes after each article to think specifically about the reading?  As parents, when was the last time you said to your co-parent, let’s make a time to think together about how our child is doing in life at home and school.  Classroom teachers, when was the last time you asked students to take 5 minutes and think quietly about the classroom topic?

Another challenge here is the confusion of tongues around the concept of thinking.  Self-help gurus often exhort us to stop thinking about things and JUST DO IT.  But I don’t think they are talking about intentional thinking, I think they are talking about reactive or intrusive thinking.  Procrastination is reactive thinking, worrying can be intrusive thinking.  Those are often roadblocks to success, but the form of thinking I have been referring to is perhaps better described as a form of concentration meditation.  Concentration meditation has come to be seen by many of us as concentrating on an image, or a candle, or chanting, or a revered object, but that is not necessarily the case, and in fact it is limiting.

What if your idea is the revered object?  What if your thought process about your work, child, patient, class is worthy of your undivided attention?  What if you were to schedule a specific time to think about a certain project?

If you are one of those detractors who say, “I just don’t have time to think,” I don’t buy it.  Thinking time is not a luxury item, although it may be a learned discipline to set aside a few minutes at a time to do it.  So please take a second and schedule a time on your calendar to think about an idea that is important to you.  Schedule a time to hold your random worries and thoughts and show up at that appointed time to seriously consider them.  I suspect this will free up more mental space and time than you may imagine.

And please Blizzard, bring back Evocation.  I miss it, and the important life lesson in mindfulness it has to teach us.

 

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Innovation is Dangerous & Gaming Causes Asperger’s

GamerTherapist blog is on vacation and will return with new posts after Labor Day.  In the meantime, here is a reader favorite:

At its heart, diagnosis is about exerting control.  Clinicians want to get some sense of control in understanding a problem.  We link diagnosis to prognosis to control our expectations of how likely and how much we will see a change in the patient’s condition.  Insurance companies want to get a handle on how much to spend on who.  Schools want to control access to resources and organize their student body.  And with the current healthcare situation, the government is sure to use diagnosis as a major part of the criteria in determining who gets what kind of care.

Therapists and Educators do not like to think of ourselves as controlling people.  But we often inadvertently attempt to exert control over our patients and entire segments of the population, by defining something as a problem and then locating it squarely in the individual we are “helping.”

This week has been one of those weeks where I have heard from several different colleagues about workshops they are attending where the presenters are linking Asperger’s with Gaming Addiction:  Not in the sense of “Many people on the Autism Spectrum find success and motivation through the use of video games,” but rather in the sense of “excessive gaming is prevalent in the autistic spectrum community.”

This has always frustrated me, for several reasons, and I decided its time to elaborate on them again:

1. Correlation does not imply Causation.  Although this is basic statistics 101 stuff, therapists and educators continue to make this mistake over and over.  Lots of people with Asperger’s play video games, this is true.  This should not surprise us, because lots of people play video games!  97% of all adolescent boys and 94% of adolescent girls, according to the Pew Research Center.  But we love to make connections, and we love the idea that we are “in the know.”  I can’t tell you how many times when I worked in education and clinics I heard talk of people were “suspected” of having Asperger’s because they liked computers and did not make eye contact.  Really.  If a kiddo didn’t look at the teacher, and liked to spend time on the computer, a suggested diagnosis of Autism couldn’t be far behind.  We like to see patterns in life, even oversimplified ones.

2. Causation often DOES imply bias.  Have you ever stopped to wonder what causes “neurotypical” behavior?  Or what causes heterosexuality for that matter.  Probably not.  We usually try to look for the causation of things we are busily pathologizing in people.  We want everyone to fit within the realm of what the unspoken majority has determined as normal.  Our education system is still prone to be designed like a little factory.  We want to have our desks in rows, our seats assigned, and our tests standardized.  So if your sensory input is a little different, or your neurology atypical, you get “helped.”  Your behavior is labeled as inappropriate if it diverges, and you are taught that you do not have and need to learn social skills.

Educators, parents, therapists and partners of folks on the Austism Spectrum, please repeat this mantra 3 times:

It is not good social skills to tell someone they do not have good social skills.

By the same token, technology, and video games, are not bad or abnormal either.  Don’t you see that it is this consensual attitude that there is something “off” about kids with differences or gamers or geeks that silently telegraphs to school bullies that certain kids are targets?  Yet, when an adolescent has no friends and is bullied it is often considered understandable because they have “poor social skills and spend too much time on the computer.”  Of course, many of the same kids are successfully socializing online through these games, and are active members of guilds where the stuff they hear daily in school is not tolerated on guild chat.

Let’s do a little experiment:  How about I forbid you to go to your book discussion group, poker night, or psychoanalytic institute.  Instead, you need to spend all of your time with the people at work who annoy you, gossip about you and make your life miserable.  Sorry, but it is for your own good.  You need to learn to get along with them, because they are a part of your real life.  You can’t hide in rooms with other weirdos who like talking about things that never happened or happened a long time ago; or hide in rooms with other people that like to spend hours holding little colored pieces of cardboard, sort them, and exchange them with each other for money; or hide in rooms where people interpret dreams and talk about “the family romance.”

I’m sure you get my point.  We have forgotten how little personal power human beings have before they turn 18.  So even if playing video games was a sign of Asperger’s, we need to reconsider our idea that there is something “wrong” with neuro-atypical behaviors.  There isn’t.

A lot of the work I have done with adults on the spectrum has been to help them debrief the trauma of the first 20 years of their lives.  I’ve had several conversations where we’ve realized that they are afraid to ask me or anyone questions about how to do things, because they worried that asking the question was inappropriate or showed poor social skills.  Is that really what you want our children to learn in school and in treatment?  That it is not ok to ask questions?  What a recipe for a life of loneliness and fear!

If you aren’t convinced, please check out this list of famous people with ASD.  They include Actors (Daryl Hannah,) bankers, composers, rock stars, a royal prince and the creator of Pokemon.  Not really surprising when you think about innovation.

3.  Innovation is Dangerous.  Innovation, like art, requires you to want things to be different than the way they are.  Those are the kids that don’t like to do math “that way,” or are seen as weird.  These are the “oversensitive” ones.  These are the ones who spend a lot of time in fantasy, imagining a world that is different.  These are the people I want to have over for hot chocolate and talk to, frankly.

But in our world, innovation is dangerous.  There are unspoken social contracts that support normalcy and bureaucracy (have you been following Congress lately?)  And there are hundreds of our colleagues who are “experts” in trying to get us all marching in lockstep, even if that means killing a different drummer.  When people try to innovate, they are mocked, fired from their jobs, beaten up, put down and ignored.  It takes a great deal of courage to innovate.  The status quo is not neutral, it actively tries to grind those who are different down.

People who are fans of technology, nowadays that means internet and computing, have always been suspect, and treated as different or out of touch with reality.  They spend “too much time on the computer,” we think, until they discover the next cool thing, or crack a code that will help fight HIV.  Only after society sees the value of what they did do they get any slack.

Stop counting the hours your kid is playing video games and start asking them what they are playing and what they like about it.  Stop focusing exclusively on the “poor social skills” of the vulnerable kids and start paying attention to bullies, whether they be playground bullies or experts.  Stop worrying about what causes autism and start worrying about how to make the world a better place for people with it.

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Dopey About Dopamine: Video Games, Drugs, & Addiction

GamerTherapist blog is on vacation and will return with new posts after Labor Day.  In the meantime, here is a reader favorite:

Last week I was speaking to a colleague whose partner is a gamer. She was telling me about their visit to his mother. During the visit my colleague was speaking to his mother about how much he still enjoys playing video games. His mother expressed how concerned she had been about his playing when he was young. “It could have been worse though,” she’d said, “at least he wasn’t into drugs.”

This comparison is reminiscent of the homophobic one where the tolerant person says, “I don’t mind if you’re gay, as long as you don’t come home with a goat.” The “distinction” made actually implies that the two things are comparable. But in fact they are not.

Our culture uses the word addiction pretty frequently and casually. And gamers and opponents of gaming alike use it in reference to playing video games. Frequently we hear the comments “gaming is like a drug,” or “video games are addictive,” or “I’m addicted to Halo 3.” What muddies the waters further are the dozens of articles that talk about “proof” that video games are addictive, that they cause real changes in the brain, changes just like drugs.

We live in a positivistic age, where something is “real” if it can be shown to be biological in nature. I could argue that biology is only one way of looking at the world, but for a change I thought I’d encourage us to take a look at the idea of gaming as addictive from the point of view of biology, specifically dopamine levels in the brain.

Dopamine levels are associated with the reward center of the brain, and the heightened sense of pleasure that characterizes rewarding experiences. When we experience something pleasurable, our dopamine levels increase. It’s nature’s way of reinforcing behaviors that are often necessary for survival.

One of the frequent pieces of evidence to support video game addiction is studies like this one by Koepp et al, which was done in 1998. It monitored changes in dopamine levels from subjects who were playing a video game. The study noted that dopamine levels increased during game play “at least twofold.” Since then literature reviews and articles with an anti-gaming bias frequently and rightly state that video games can cause dopamine levels to “double” or significantly increase.

They’re absolutely right, video games have been shown to increase dopamine levels by 100% (aka doubling.)

Just like studies have shown that food and sex increase dopamine levels:

This graph shows that eating food often doubles the level of dopamine in the brain, ranging from a spike of 50% to a spike of 100% an hour after eating. Sex is even more noticeable, in that it increases dopamine levels in the brain by 200%.

So, yes, playing video games increases dopamine levels in your brain, just like eating and having sex do, albeit less. But just because something changes your dopamine levels doesn’t mean it is addictive. In fact, we’d be in big trouble if we never had increases in our dopamine levels. Why eat or reproduce when it is just as pleasurable to lie on the rock and bask in the sun?

But here’s the other thing that gets lost in the spin. Not all dopamine level increases are created equal. Let’s take a look at another chart, from the Meth Inside-Out Public Media Service Kit:

This is a case where a picture is worth a thousand words. When we read that something “doubles” it certainly sounds intense, or severe. But an increase of 100% seems rather paltry compare to 350% (cocaine) or 1200% (Meth)!

One last chart for you, again from the NIDA. This one shows the dopamine increases (the pink line) in amphetamine, cocaine, nicotine and morphine:

Of all of these, the drug morphine comes closest to a relatively “low” increase of 100%.

So my point here is twofold:

1. Lots of things, not all or most of them drugs, increase the levels of dopamine.

2. Drugs have a much more marked, sudden, and intense increase in dopamine level increase compared to video games.

Does this mean that people can’t have problem usage of video games? No. But what it does mean, in my opinion, is that we have to stop treating behaviors as if they were controlled substances. Playing video games, watching television, eating, and having sex are behaviors that can all be problematic in certain times and certain contexts. But they are not the same as ingesting drugs, they don’t cause the same level of chemical change in the brain.

And we need to acknowledge that there is a confusion of tongues where the word addiction is involved. Using it in a clinical sense is different than in a lay sense– saying “I’m hooked on meth” is not the same as saying “I’m hooked on phonics.” Therapists and gamers alike need to be more mindful of what they are saying and meaning when they say they are addicted to video games. Do they mean it is a psychological illness, a medical phenomenon? Do they mean they can’t get enough of them, or that they like them a whole lot? Do they mean it is a problem in their life, or are they parroting what someone else has said to them?

I don’t want to oversimplify addiction by reducing it to dopamine level increase. Even in the above discussion I have oversimplified these pieces of “data.” There are several factors, such as time after drug, that we didn’t compare. And there are several other changes in brain chemistry that contribute to rewarding behavior and where it goes awry. I just want to show an example of how research can be cited and misused to distort things. The study we started out with simply found that we can measure changes in brain chemistry which occur when we do certain activities. It was not designed or intended to be proof that video games are dangerous or addictive.

Saying that something changes your brain chemistry shouldn’t become the new morality. Lots of things change your brain chemistry. But as Loretta Laroche says, “a wet towel on the bed is not the same as a mugging.” We need to keep it complicated and not throw words around like “addiction” and “drug” because we want people to take us seriously or agree with us. That isn’t scientific inquiry. That’s hysteria.

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Bad Object Rising: How We Learn to Hate Our Educated Selves

Recently I had the opportunity to work with a great set of educators in a daylong seminar.  One of the things I do with teachers when I present is have them play Minecraft.  In this case I started off by giving a general presentation that ended with a story of auto-didactism in an Ethiopian village, where 20 children who had never seen the printed word were given tablets and taught themselves to read.  I did this in part to frame the pedagogy for what came next:  I had them turn on Minecraft and spend 30 minutes exploring the game without any instruction other than getting them networked.

The responses were as varied as the instructors, but one response fascinated me in particular.  Midway into the 30 minutes, one teacher stopped playing the game and started checking her email.  Later, when we returned to our group to have a discussion about the thoughts and feelings that came up around game play, this same teacher spoke up.  We were discussing the idea of playfulness in learning when she said , “you know, I hear a lot about games and learning, and making learning fun; but sometimes learning isn’t fun and you have to do it anyway.  Sometimes you just have to suck it up and do the work.”

“I’m not saying that I disagree with you entirely,”  I said.  “But then how do we account for your giving up on Minecraft and starting to check your email?”

She looked a little surprised, and after a moment’s reflection said, “fair enough.”

I use this example because these are educators who are extremely dedicated to teaching their students, and very academically educated themselves.  Academia has this way, though, of seeping into your mind and convincing you that academics and education are one and the same.  They’re not.

I worked in the field of Special Education for more than a decade from the inside of it, and one of the things I came to believe is that there are no unteachable students.  That is the good news and the bad news.  Bad news because if a student was truly unteachable, they wouldn’t learn from us that they are dumb or bad if they don’t demonstrate the academic achievement we expect.  I remember the youth I worked with calling each other “SPED monkeys” as an insult; clearly they learned that from somewhere and someone.  They had learned to hate themselves as a bad object, in object relations terms, or to project that badness onto other students.  They learned this from the adults around them, from the microaggressions of hatred they experienced every day:  By hate I’ll go with Merriam as close enough, “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.”

We tend to mistakenly equate hatred with rage and physical violence, but I suggest that this is because we want to set hatred itself up as hated by and other from ourselves; surely we never behave that way.  But hatred is not always garbed in extremis.  Hatred appears every day to students who don’t fit the academic mold.  Hatred yells “speak English!” to the 6 year olds getting off the bus chatting in Spanish.  Hatred shakes its head barely (but nevertheless) perceptibly before moving on to the next student when the first has fallen silent in their struggle.  Hatred identifies the problem student in the class and bears down on her, saying proudly, “I don’t coddle my students.”  And Hatred shrugs his shoulders when the student has been absent for 3 weeks, and waits for them to be dropped from the rolls.

I’m not sure how I came to see this, because I was one of the privileged academically.  I got straight A’s, achieved academic awards and scholarships that lifted me into an upperclass world and peer group.  I wrote papers seemingly without effort, read for pleasure, and was excited to get 3 more years of graduate school.  And I have had the opportunity to become an educator and an academic myself, having taught college and graduate students.  I could have stayed quiet and siloed in my area of expertise, but work with differently-abled learners taught me something different.  It taught me that people learn to dislike education, shortly after academia learns to dislike them.

Perhaps one of the best literary portrayals of  adult hatred of divergent thinkers comes from the movie Matilda:

“Listen, you little wise acre. I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Nowadays I teach in a much different way than I did early on, before I flipped my classrooms and facilitated guided learning experiences rather than encourage people to memorize me and ideas that I had memorized from others.  And I struggle with this new approach, because I enjoy it so much I feel guilty.  You see, I have internalized the bad object too.  Even with my good grades I internalized it.  And any time I start to depart from the traditional mold of the educated self, I experience a moment of blindness, then a stony silence that seems to say, “you’re being lazy, you should make them a powerpoint and prepare a lecture.”  Yet, if my evaluations on the whole and student and colleague testimonies have truth to them, I am a “good” educator.  So let’s say I am a “good” educator, and if I as a good educator struggle with this, we shouldn’t assume that people that struggle with these issues are “bad” educators.

In fact, when it comes to emerging technologies like social media and video games, educators often try to avoid them, if not because they are fun and suspect, then because educators risk experiencing themselves as the bad object: Who wants to experience themselves as hopelessly dumb, clumsy or lazy when they can experience themselves as the bountiful and perfectly cited fount of all wisdom?  Truth is, both are distorted images of the educated self.

Don’t forget that educators themselves experience tons of societal hatred.  For them it often comes in the guise of curriculum requirements or linking their performance to outcomes on standardized testing.  Hatred comes in the low salaries and the perception that people doing intellectual or emotional labor aren’t really working.  All of this helps educators to internalize a bad object which feels shaming and awful; is it any wonder that we sometimes unconsciously try to get that bad object away from ourselves and locate it in the student?

The good news as I said before is that we are all teachable.  We can learn to make conscious and make sense of the internalized bad object representations.  We can see that thinking of people in terms of smart or dumb is a form of splitting.

And yes, there’s a lot we can do about it.

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Empathy (Re)Training

 

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Last night I was mining Gold Omber in the asteroid belt near Erindur VI, and I can’t begin to tell you what an accomplishment that was. (This post is not just about spaceships, but about pacifists, Ethiopia and education, so non-gaming educators and therapists keep reading.)  OK, let me tell you why it was an accomplishment.  I am talking about playing the MMO EVE Online, which involves piloting spaceships across vast amounts of space in order to mine, trade, build or pirate among other things.  In essence, your spaceship is your character, with the ship’s parts being the equivalent of your armor and weapons in games like World of Warcraft.  But you can only build or use these parts as your pilot acquires skills, ranging from engineering to planetology to cybernetics, so in that way the player’s pilot is the character in the game.  But at the start of the game you’re told that the pilot is actually a clone (this becomes important later on) and as someone was explaining to me last night the whole cloning thing has its own complications once you start using implants to modify individual clones, which you can only do after you’ve trained the skill of Cybernetics.  And why all that is important is because once you use implants you can learn skills more quickly.

If you think that is confusing, try learning how to use the sprawling user interface or UI, which one of my friends says “was made by demons who hate people, hate their hopes and dreams. Know that you are playing with toys made by demons for their amusement and tread lightly.”  Another way of putting it is that you have keep trying to remember what window you opened in the game to do what, and often have multiple windows open simultaneously in order to figure out what you’re doing or buying or training.  There is a robot tutorial program in the game that helps somewhat, but the whole thing is very frustrating and intriguing for the first several hours of game play.  During this time I was ganked repeatedly, lost lots of loot and ore I had mined, as well as a nice spaceship or two.  So to get to the point where I had learned enough skills to be able to warp halfway across the galaxy, lock onto an asteroid, orbit and mine it while defending myself from marauders was extremely exciting.  I was only able to do this because my above-mentioned friend had given me a much bigger and safer ship than I had started out with, as well as lots of instructions on how to do things; and because I was chatting with people in the game who offered great tips.  Of course one of those people then clicked on my profile in chat to then locate me and gank me again (bye-bye nice ship,) but the knowledge is mine to keep.

By now you may be asking “what has any of this got to do with psychotherapy, social work or education?” so I’ll explain.  I had tried EVE months ago, and given up after about a week of on and off attempts, but this past month I have begun teaching an online course for college educators and MSWs about integrating technology into psychotherapy and education.  One of the required exercises in the course is for the students to get a trial account of World of Warcraft and level a character to 20.  There has been a lot of good-natured reluctance and resistance to doing this, in this class and others:  I have been asked to justify this course material in a way I have never had to justify other learning materials to students.   This included several objecting to playing the game because of violent content prior to playing it much or at all.  It’s as if people were not initially able to perceive the course material of World of Warcraft as being in the same oeuvre as required readings or videos.  It is one thing to bring up in your English literature class that you found the violence in “Ivanhoe” or the sex in “The Monk” objectionable after reading it, but I’ve not heard of cases where students have refused to read these books for class based on those objections.  So I was curious, what made video games so different in people’s minds?

Things became easier for several folks after I set up times to meet them in the game world, and help them learn and play through the first few quests.  As I chatted with them and tried to explain the basic game mechanics I realized that I had learned to take for granted certain knowledge and skills, such as running, jumping, and clicking on characters to speak with them.  I started to suspect that the resistance to playing these games was perhaps connected to the tremendous amount of learning that was having to go on in order to even begin to play the game.  In literacy education circles we would call this  learning pre-readiness skills.  Being thrown into a learning environment in front of peers and your instructor was unsettling, immediate, and potentially embarrassing.  And I think being educators may have actually made this even harder.  Education in the dominant paradigm of the 20th and 21st century seeks to create literary critics and professors as the ultimate outcome of education, according to Ken Robinson.  So here are a group of people who have excelled at reading and writing suddenly being asked to learn and develop an entirely new and different skill set within the framework of a college course:  Of course they were frustrated.

So I started playing EVE again not just to have fun, but to have a little refresher course in empathy.  I have leveled to 90 in WoW, so I know how to do things there, and had begun to forget how frustrating and bewildering learning new games can be.  In EVE I have been clueless and failing repeatedly, and getting in touch with how frustrating that learning curve can be.  I have also been re-experiencing how thrilling it is the first time I make a connection between too concepts or actions in the game:  When I realized that there was a difference between my “Assets” and my “Inventory” I wanted to shout it from the rooftops.  I have begun to see and help my students reflect on similar “learning rushes” when they get them as well.  They are now , in short, rocking the house in Azeroth.

We forget how thrilling and confusing it can be to learn sometimes, especially to the large population on the planet that doesn’t necessarily want to be a college professor or psychotherapist.  We forget that our patients and students are asked to master these frustrations and resistances every day with little notice or credit.

There is a village in Ethiopia, where 20 children were given Xoom tablet computers last year.  The researchers/founders of One Laptop Per Child dropped them off in boxes to these children, who had never learned to read or write.  They were offered no instruction and the only restriction placed on the tablet was to disable the camera.  Within minutes the children had opened the box and learned how to turn the computers on; within weeks they were learning their ABCs and writing; and within months they had learned how to hack into the tablet and turn the camera back on, all without teachers.  This story inspires and terrifies many.  It is inspiring in that it tells the story of what children can learn if they are allowed to be experimental and playful.  It is terrifying because if all this was done without a teacher to lecture or a therapist to raise self-esteem, it raises the question “do we still need them?”

Having played EVE, and taught academics in World of Warcraft, let me assure you that the world still needs teachers and therapists.  But the world needs us to begin to learn how to teach and help in a different way.  If EVE had nothing but online tutorials I would have probably struggled more and given up.  I needed to remain social and related to ask for help, listen to tips, and get the occasional leg up.  We need to retrain ourselves in empathic attunement by going to the places that scare or frustrate us, even if those places are video games.  The relationship is still important; to inspire, encourage and enjoy when learning happens in its myriad forms.  But we need to remember that there are many literacies and that not all human beings aspire to teach an infinitely recurring scholasticism to others.  We need to remember how embarrassing it can be to “not get it,” and how the people we work with every day are heroic that they can continue to show up to live and be educated in a system that humiliates them.

What’s exciting and promising, though, is this simple fact:  Learning is happening everywhere, all the time!  Whether it’s a village in Ethiopia, Elwynn Forest in Azeroth, or in orbit around Erindur VI; learning is happening.  Across worlds real and imagined, rich and poor, learning IS happening.

And we get to keep all the knowledge we find.

 

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Want To Help Stop Youth Cyberbullying? Let Your Kids Raid More.

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The above title is misleading.  In fact it is as misleading as the term cyberbullying, which is an umbrella term used from experiences which range drastically.  “Cyberbullying” has been used to describe the humiliation of LGBT youth via video; the racial hatred of Sikhs on Reddit, the systematic harassment and suicide of a teenage girl by a neighboring peer’s mother; a hoax wherein a Facebooker pretended to be a woman’s missing (for 31 years); and the bad Yelp reviews of a restauranteur in AZ.

Wait, huh?

My point, exactly:  All of the things described above are different in scope, intentionality, form of media used, duration, and impact.  We need to keep this complicated.  This is not to take away from the horrific acts that people  have perpetuated with social media, or excuse them.  Rather I think we need to help kids and their parents find more nuanced ways to make sense of the way newer technologies are impacting us.

Social media amplifies ideas, feelings, and conflicts.  It often dysregulates family systems.   Growing up, many family members didn’t need to learn the level of digital literacy that today’s world requires.  Parents may be tempted to put their children in a lengthy or permanent internet lockdown.  I hear the threats, or read them, all the time:  No screens.  You’re unplugged.  She’s grounded from Facebook.

Please don’t do that.

I’ve worked with a number of young adults who have had the experiences of being on the receiving end of hatred, stalking, harassment and intrusion delivered via the internet.  And thank goodness that their parents didn’t unplug them as kids.  Because they stayed online they got to:

  • learn how to ignore haters
  • see/hear others stand up for them in a social media setting
  • come to the defense of a peer themselves
  • increase their ability to meet verbal aggression with cognition
  • make the hundreds of microdecisions about whether to “fight this battle”
  • seek out support from other peers
  • form strong online communities and followings that helped them cope with and marginalize the aggressors

More and more, online technologies are becoming a prevalent form of communication, and to take away access is to remove the hearing and voice of youth.  To do this is disempowerment, not protection.

I’ve said before that parents need to take an engaged approach with kids in order to be there to help kids understand and process the conflicts that are communicated through and amplified by social media.  But this time I want to go further, and suggest that one way to help kids achieve digital literacy in terms of social skills is to let them play more multiplayer video games.

Many of you probably saw that coming, but for those of you who didn’t, let me explain.  21st century video games are themselves a powerful form of social media.  Multiplayer games allow individuals to band together as guilds, raids, platoons and other groups to achieve higher endgame goals.  Collaboration is built into them as part of the fun and as necessary to meet the challenges.

There are exceptions to this, but it has been my experience that people don’t begin systematic personal attacks on each other when they are in the middle of downing Onyxia.  They are too busy joining forces to win.  I am convinced that much hatred we see in the developed world is there in large part because of boredom and apathy.  Games provide an alternative form of engagement to hatin’

Look, I’m not saying that people playing games never say sexist things, swear, or utter homophobic comments.  But I can say that I have heard more people, adults and children, stand up to hatred in World of Warcraft than I ever have in the 2 decades I worked in public school settings.  I’ve seen racism confronted numerous times in guild chat, seen rules for civility created and enforced over and over, always citing a variation of  the same reason:  “We’re all here to have fun, so please keep the climate conducive to that.”

Video games provide powerful interactive arenas for diverse groups of people to collaborate or compete strategically.  They capture our interest with a different sort of drama than the sort that we see our youth struggle with in other settings.  In fact, for many individuals video games provide a welcome respite from the drama that occurs in those other settings.

Social media does indeed amplify nastiness, harassment and hatred.  It also amplifies kindness, hope, generosity and cooperation.  If we don’t lean into social media with our kids, they’ll never know how to use it to amplify goodness in the world.  Worse yet, if we cut them off from connecting with the world online we’ll deprive them of the necessary opportunities to recognize and choose between good and evil.

Like this post?  I can speak in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.  And, for only $4.99 you can buy my book.  You can also  Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!